THE FOOLISHNESS OF PRIDE: AN ESSAY ON CANCEL CULTURE
What do you think of when I say the words ‘Cancel Culture’?
You’ll feel some kind of way about it. You’ll either posit that it doesn’t exist (that the cultural practice of ‘cancelling’ is a form of accountability and consequences for bad behavior), that it does exist but isn’t that big of a deal, or that it is a huge cultural problem. At any rate, you have a neuronal pattern that lights up inside of your brain when you process the english word pairing ‘cancel’ and ‘culture’ in immediate succession. Let me extend that for you.
Whether or not ‘cancel culture’ exists does not change the fact that a pattern of consciousness has entered our awareness and we are attempting to name it. We don’t necessarily have clean lines and clear boundaries around what this thing is, but enough of us have bumped up against it in some capacity that there’s a collective ‘sense’ that something new is here. There’s some kind of force at work in people, for any number of reasons. Maybe it’s the way that social media incentives are designed; maybe it’s the way that our modes of production have systematically disempowered the vast majority of participants in ‘the market’ and made us feel like collective vitriol is our only recourse in moments of injustice; maybe it’s a general lack of emotional and intellectual maturity in the average user — myself included — leading us to quickly shout unkind hyperbole in the wake of ‘the latest drama’. It’s probably all of these things, but it’s also something deeper and more insidious than that.
Cancel Culture is an Egregore. Strap in.
The word egregore refers to an esoteric concept that was introduced to me by the astrologer Fairlie Theta. She explained it to mean “an emergent force created and existing through the intellect of large groups of individuals”. It’s like a creature — some kind of semi-divine entity whose body is not physical, but rather, psychological. It exists via distributed thought patterns; it is the embodiment of a meme. While you can’t see it with your eyes, you could if you had some kind of x-ray vision and could pull your focus back a few miles; it’s body is literally the thought patterns that exist in many peoples’ minds simultaneously. Our physical bodies become its cellular loco-motors, our vocal cords and fingertips become its viral vectors, and it does its work on society by hijacking our social incentives and changing our behavior patterns to suit its proliferation.
It may be useful to define meme here as well; in an academic sense, memes (and their accompanying field of research known as mimetics) describe self-replicating information that spreads through human communication. The atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term to deliberately mirror the concept of genes and genetics; whereas genes are bits of physical information that self-replicate (through biochemistry), memes are psychological or intellectual bits of information that self-replicate. When we share a silly video online and suddenly it spirals out into remixes and new interpretations, we are watching the process of mimetic evolution take place in real time. In certain contexts, memes can become totally untethered from their inciting ‘thought’, and can distort existing social incentives to become world-shaping forces of good and evil. Religion is a meme; democracy, too. Memes are a useful tool for understanding the anthropological relationships we all experience in a global society. The concept of the Egregore is a bit like personifying a specific meme-pattern. You take a meme, and you imbue it with being, as though it has a primal intelligence all its own.
It’s my opinion that, by imbuing an otherwise abstract but observable pattern such as ‘cancel culture’ with a primal intelligence, we become better able to think of ways to productively relate to the concept. We as individuals only have agency to address something like ‘cancel culture’ in so far as we are able to understand it as a process that operates under its own logic and desire to persist. Ergo, Egregore.
“The Egregore of Cancel Culture” is a bit of a mouthful, though. Let’s condense that to its essence: What human emotion is most at work when we talk about Cancel Culture? What pattern of consciousness does this phenomenon most exalt?
Maybe there really is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’; maybe we’re talking about the material incarnation of Pride. The great sin made manifest in the flesh — a bonafide adversary.
At the core of the idea of ‘cancelling’ (wherein a human being who is perceived by a contingent of society to have done something harmful, abusive, or immoral, becomes the target of a focused campaign of harassment in an effort to inflict psychological or physical harm on the person as a form of retribution) is fueled on almost every level by shame. The ‘cancellers’ are wielding shame to try and destroy the mental well-being and social reputation of a perceived target; the target will likely invoke shame towards the cancellers in an effort to protect themselves and their reputation. At the same time, both cancellers and target are (unconsciously) wielding pride to justify their position in the dynamic. Pride, after all, is the polarity of shame; these energies produce each other in proportion to their intensity. When we project shame onto others, we do so in part because it makes us feel like we are morally superior to the target of that shame. We play the part of canceller because it makes us feel like we are better than they are and therefore that we have something to be proud of, and we play the part of cancelled for the same reason. How many people now use the fact that they have been cancelled as a branding technique? How many people are twisted into the upside down logic of shame, entirely unaware of how their actions are in service of the extraperceptual superentity known as Pride?
Eckhart Tolle addresses this phenomenon through the language of the hungry ego. In his work, ‘A New Earth’, he discusses the way in which our sense of self is habitually conflated with our identity: we forget that we are not our name, our history, our memories or our context, but are rather something transcending all of that which has no beginning or end because it is pure ‘awakeness’, pure consciousness. We forget this, because our egos are hungry, and the ego eats by telling itself a story about who and what it is. It was Tolle’s work that made me realize even in moments of self-pity and suicidal depression, the ego is feasting and strengthening itself. We sometimes talk about the ego as though it is only present in those who think highly of themselves, but Tolle’s point seems to be that the ego doesn’t care whether you think of yourself in a positive or negative way — it cares that you think of yourself at all, that you think of yourself as being real. Your ego can feast voraciously on the idea that you are a bad person deserving of exile, just as surely as it can feast on the notion that you are a good person capable of determining who else is deserving of exile. Egos grow fat on the unconscious and automatic narratives that emerge from drama, conflict, and argument. Egos crave conflict; it’s somewhere between a buffet and a day trip to the gymnasium for them. If you spend all of your time embroiled in arguments on the internet about the right politics, you are constantly reinforcing and training your ego.
And what is the ego’s most desired delicacy?
Pride, and Shame. Which are one and the same.
Our medium of communication — that is, social media, whose incentives are not spiritual or political but economic — has been designed to exploit this phenomenon for monetary gain. These platforms are fueled by advertising, and by the creation of “engagement”, coming from compelling “content”. They are agnostic as to the nature of the content, and are happy to encourage whatever social phenomenon is the most compulsive. As it turns out, the feeding of our egos is extraordinarily effective at this. The whole machine is built like a video game for ego competition. You have a score. You have a player character. You have feedback and gameplay loops. You have metrics for comparing your performance to everyone else who is playing. When you score a ‘hit’ you are rewarded with dings and bells and little red lights and numeric indicators of how effectively you have ‘dunked’ on the other team. Unconsciously, whether you are winning or losing, your ego is constantly being bombarded with affirmations. You are loved and cherished, you are unimportant, you are hated, you are respected, you are known. You are real.
There is no incentive within the system for large numbers of humans to gain a deeper understanding of how this game works, or to become self-aware about the ways in which we engage in it. On the contrary: the system works best when we are completely incurious about our modes of engagement and allow the algorithm to unscrupulously guide us towards certain topics, certain products, certain kinds of emotional reaction, etcetera. When the phenomenon of a ‘cancellation’ begins, the algorithm detects human engagement and pours gasoline onto the fire, making everyone in everyone’s network simultaneously aware of the opportunity to dive in and be a part of the game. Get it while it’s hot, get those clever dehumanizing meta-ironic comments out there now while it’s trending, because your sense of self-worth is now inextricably connected to how many likes you get on that tweet. If you hesitate, you lose points, and if you can’t get that delicious serotonin, how are you going to get out of bed in the morning? What is the point, in this nihilistic capitalist hellscape?
The proclivity for mass shaming has always been present in the human species, but its nature and cumulative effect has radically transformed along with our technological development. If you set aside your moral judgments and get curious about the intimate psychological process of ‘cancelling’ as it occurs within a single individual, you’ll see an ancient pattern that once served the vitality of the tribe. If you were a band of hunter-gatherers smaller than Dunbar’s number (150 people or less) and someone in that tribe was accused of some foul transgression, getting the group together to collectively shame the culprit had a good likelihood of producing the desired effect: behavioral change, or true exile of the bad actor. This process served the long term survival of the group; it’s where our impulse to collectively shame comes from.
But, as with our wisdom teeth, evolution is not a perfect process. Internal combustion and circuit boards progress much faster than the biological reality of the human animal does. Our impulses and mental models are squishy and slow whereas our communication networks are now lightning quick, and when you introduce the same bundle of animals into environments with wildly different rules, you get wildly different outcomes. Collective shaming does not work in a globally interconnected society of diverse perspectives. We do not have a community of Dunbar’s number — we have communities of hundreds of millions or billions, all connected through the same server farms, all one IP address away. If you identify a morally deficient agent in the world and you bring your evolutionary tendency for mass shaming to bear on them, how easy it now is for that individual to put out an alarm signal and find themselves brought into and protected by a rival faction who thinks that, actually, you are the morally deficient one. The more we give in to that shaming impulse, the more polarized these two perspectives become; the more intense and fierce you become with your campaign to destroy or exile this other person, the more fuel you give to the parallel narrative that you are the ones deserving of punishment, and ironically, the more status you give to your target within their parallel community. The harder and louder and more intensely you attempt to cancel that person — unless they are found convincingly guilty of universally detested behavior, as in the case of someone like Harvey Weinstein — the more power you lend to that person as they splinter away from you. Nothing has changed in the animal behavior; but the technology that augments it has changed the way that equation unfolds.
So much of these fascinating and chaotic processes are the direct result of our childish relationship with our newfound technological potency. These technologies have had less than a lifetime to mature, and we’ve all had to learn how to use them from the ground up. The conflict and violence present at all levels of our society today is the natural result of handing a bunch of children the tools to wage a global psychic and spiritual war against one another. Meanwhile, the egregores that feast upon our patterns have never been stronger.
Perhaps my desire to contextualize different problems in the world as these emergent eldritch beings is a fool’s errand. Maybe it really doesn’t matter how we think about these things, and maybe projecting this concept of ‘the adversary’ onto these forces won’t affect how people choose to relate to or engage with them. In my heart I find inspiration in the idea that I am waging war against dark angels who care not for the beauty and complexity of an individual human soul. It helps me remember that my enemy is not the person engaging in the destructive behavior, but the destructive behavior itself. It helps me consider how and why that pattern of consciousness is able to become so entrenched, and it helps me think about it not in terms of changing other peoples’ brains but in terms of what this monstrous being eats, and how to deprive it of that food. We evolved to create ‘the other’ — some kind of being outside of our tribe that we can rally against — as a form of protection, and in a global society where we are regularly challenged to understand the whole of humanity as our tribe, I think we may still need ‘the other’. The egregore of Pride feasts upon our shame, and we feed it constantly, unconscious to what we are doing. We default to shaming one another because we’ve inherited these ancient evolutionary patterns and have yet to realize how our indulgences do not serve us, our stated goals, or the well being of our now global tribe. We default to scorn and dismissal because we’re exhausted by the pattern of our lives and it makes dumb animals of us all. We justify our refusal to change these maladaptive processes because we hold pride and shame around them; the idea that we need to change them would require us to grapple with the very uncomfortable notion that the world is this way because of us. There is a massive shame looming in our unconscious, held back by the dam we’ve constructed out of pride that tells us, “No, it cannot be our responsibility, we have identified the culprit and it is them.”
I think now of the phenomenal quote by the psychedelic shaman Terrence McKenna:
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”
The real antidote to shame is not Pride; it’s courage. Courage to confront your own inadequacies. Courage to take responsibility for the state of the world. Courage to recognize moments of conflict not as a them problem, but rather as your own communication deficiencies. You are missing something, you have not gained the necessary wisdom, you lack compassion or empathy and these are the real reasons you have been unable to have productive discourse. Yes, the systems select against it, yes, social media is designed to foster these communication breakdowns, yes, other people have their parts to play and you cannot be their absolution (nor should you allow them to force it upon you), but as a sovereign citizen of this universe, spending any amount of time or energy concerned with other peoples’ paths is a waste of your power. Your path and your actions are what you have power over. There is a looming fear of worthlessness inside of you in direct proportion to how much you project that energy onto others. If you are constantly identifying the moral deficiencies in other human beings, that is the biggest, brightest red flag that somewhere within you, you fear the same deficiency in yourself. Your fear — that is, your lack of courage — may prevent you from looking at this truth in the face, but it is where these conflict patterns come from. If you ever want to heal that wound, you have to have courage.
This is the message of the Fool and the Fox, the core principle that brings the mission of Anthromancer into focus. To be a Fool is to think of yourself as enlightened as the Fox; but to be a Fox is to recognize that you will always be a Fool, and to embrace that truth with courage and humility. There is nothing to be afraid of; we are all sinners, we are all imperfect unfolding processes within the perfect fabric of creation. Our past transgressions and the deep vitriol we’ve held for those we perceive as committing wicked deeds of their own, like all forces in nature, change over time. They are not static and eternal judgments against a person’s very soul. They are moments that we experience in the grip of truth, and then move through, as the truth itself transforms around us. This is the nature of all things, yet we treat ourselves and others as though momentary judgments become the de-facto rule of a person’s eternal totality. This is, as the buddha would say, wrong thinking, and the whole world begins to heal when we correct such wrong thinking inside our own minds.
As I revise this essay I find it interesting I should feel compelled to write it at the beginning of Pride month. Pride — the festival of liberation from shame that was created in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots as lesbian, gay and transgender people from all backgrounds stood up for their right to exist as they were without shame — is really a movement of courage. It makes sense that people who had lived under the constant oppressive force of shame for something inherent to their identity would create a movement named after what is seen as the opposite of that oppressive force. And it’s not really my place to tell anyone how they should posture and what label they should use. But in its most divine incarnation, the lessons the rest of the world can learn from the queer community have nothing to do with “pride”, and everything to do with courage — the courage to face the imposition of shame and remain unmoved by it. The courage to accept that some people will want you to die simply for existing in your natural state, and to choose not to allow that fear to prevent you from chasing that authenticity. The courage to stand up in the face of psychological and physical acts of violence, knowing that you may suffer obliteration. It’s about courage.
Reactionary religious voices will look at the aesthetics — that is, the label of “pride” — and quake in their boots at what they perceive to be the most depraved distortion of deadly sin into holy virtue, and warn their children against it, and disown members of their own family, and fracture the human tribe in the wake of their own hidden shame, more concerned with keeping up appearances in their community and ‘the eyes of God’ than in deep reflection and curious investigation into the real patterns that govern all of these processes. They, too, are gripped by the tendrils of Pride. They forget themselves and they forget the lessons of their own scripture; they fall into patterns of fear and perceive them as patterns of love, seemingly unaware of what faith really means, and how bulletproof true faith in God’s love ought to make you feel. They subsume their power into ideologues and political charlatans and make the same kinds of cancel culture justifications for casting their own flesh and blood out into the world, and lack the courage to inquire into their own reasons for doing this…because the egregore of pride and shame has totally colonized the minds of everyone in our society.
In this sense, I find the LGBTQ community’s generational attempts to exist in public without shame to be one of the more divine manifestations of love in the world. Here is a group of people who are casting off the shame that society imposes on them in its pride. Here is a group of people who are trying, perhaps imperfectly at times, to make a world that is more kind and more accepting of different ways of being, so long as those ways of being do not harm others. Perhaps they are all prideful fools…but so are we all. It isn’t something we chose. It is something we inherited, and it is our responsibility to become aware of that pattern and to choose something different. That starts with how we choose to relate to one another. It starts with how we choose to relate to ourselves. And more than anything, it starts with courage; the courage to love ourselves and to love those who hate us, to love our imperfections and the imperfections of others, and to understand what a gift we are giving ourselves in doing so.
I believe this is what Jesus of Nazareth was trying to teach the world when he died trying to absolve us of our sins; the point is that your sins do not condemn you. We are all sinners, we are not alone, and we have nothing to be afraid of. It is what it is, and you are still worthy of love. It does not matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done, and it does not matter what other people say or think about you; the love we are talking about is the most radical love imaginable. It’s love beyond measure. It’s infinite, and eternal, and it’s always one tuning of your consciousness away; it’s always there for you, once you’ve got the tools you need to access it. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what holy book you read, or if you even believe that God is real. The love we’re talking about doesn’t care about any of these superficial cosmic hashtags. It cares about one thing, and one thing only:
How wicked do we become when we operate from a place of fear? How twisted do our values get when we filter them through the axis of pride and shame? How useless is our creative agency when we lose sight of what we actually want, and fail to build logical frameworks for how to achieve those goals, because we’re torqued up in a maelstrom of low-vibrational animal reactivity?
Do you want to build a better world? You cannot do it alone. You cannot exile and shame your way towards a more enlightened humanity. You cannot genocide the undesirables, no matter what your criteria for what ‘undesirable’ means. You have to deepen your love and lift people up, not with weakness, but with strength; not with suspicion, but with faith; not with fear, but with courage. Our hollow institutions aren’t going to suddenly become enlightened until we kill the egregores that own them. That’s a battle that starts right here, right now, in you.
How do you want to do this?